Off the coast of North Carolina, the Outer Banks are a 200-mile chain of narrow barrier islands. As a famous vacation destination, the area is particularly known for sandy beaches, seafood restaurants, oceanfront homes, and luxury resorts. But there is another, and somewhat wilder, side to this unique region that often goes overlooked.
The Outer Banks are home to no less than four units of the National Park Service. Two of these units are national seashores that preserve several mostly undeveloped sections of Atlantic Ocean coastline, some tracts of maritime forest, and many tidal marshes along the inner sounds. The other two units are historical, with one site focused on the efforts of two famous American aviators. The other unit preserves the site of the first English colony in North America—which mysteriously vanished in the late-16th century.
Most visitors come to the Outer Banks for beach vacations during the summer high season, when the weather is hot and the ocean temperatures are increasingly warm. In general, visitation ramps up during April and May; crowds peak during June, July, and August; and the numbers start to decline during September and through October. The shoulder seasons of spring and fall—especially the mild months of March and November—offer a nice compromise between crowds, daylight, and warm weather. Meanwhile, the cooler winter offseason—from December through February—may appeal to some national park enthusiasts. On average, winter daytime highs are typically in the mid- to low-50s, with many sunny but short days for outdoor activities.
Below we discuss the top activities at each of the four NPS units, plus a few state and local parks, from north to south. No matter what time of year you decide to visit the Outer Banks, definitely plan on checking out some of these excellent parks!
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Located in Kill Devil Hills, just south of Kitty Hawk, Wright Brothers National Memorial preserves the site of the first powered airplane flights in human history. On a chilly day in mid-December 1903, two brothers from Ohio named Orville and Wilbur Wright flew their revolutionary aircraft on a series of four short but historic flights.
Today, the makeshift 1903 airstrip is commemorated by a walkway with stone monuments marking the distances of each successively longer flight: 120 feet, 175 feet, 200 feet, and the most impressive of all, 852 feet. Near the airstrip, there’s a replica of the brother’s wooden hangar. Several paths lead to a large granite monument atop Kill Devil Hill. Inside the visitor center, there’s a museum with a full-size replica of the historic 1903 Wright Flyer.
A few miles south of Wright Brothers National Memorial you’ll find Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This small park spans almost the entire width of narrow Bodie Island, near Nag’s Head. The highlight here is walking through an impressive dune field which leads to views of Albemarle Sound. With some reaching heights of 80 to 100 feet, these are the tallest active dunes in the eastern U.S.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Located near the northern tip of Roanoke Island, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the location of the Lost Colony. In the late-16th century, the first English colony in North America was established here. But within a few years, the entire colony of over 100 men, women, and children had mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again.
Highlights include touring the visitor center museum, which presents the various theories about the colonists’ disappearance. A short nature trail winds through the small site, which includes a star-shaped earthen fort that was reconstructed to resemble one built by the English in the 1580s.
Centuries later, during the Civil War, the Union-occupied island became home to formerly enslaved African Americans. The Freedom Trail starts near the visitor center and leads 1.25 miles, one-way, to the site of the 1860s Freedman’s Colony, at the edge of Albemarle Sound.
Another historic park to consider is the Roanoke Island Festival Park, located in the nearby town of Manteo. This indoor-outdoor museum includes recreations of an Algonquin coastal village, several buildings from the English colony, and a sea-worthy English merchant ship from the 1580s expedition.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Stretching over 70 miles along the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a unique NPS unit. To start, it spans three different islands. Only two of these islands, Bodie Island and Hatteras Island, can be reached by road. The third, Ocracoke Island, requires a ferry ride. Three of the biggest—and tallest—highlights are famous 19th-century lighthouses, each worth a stop.
Near the southern end of Bodie Island, the Bodie Island Lighthouse has a visitor center and short boardwalk leading to a marsh and viewpoint. The lighthouse can be climbed seasonally, most recently from Wednesday through Saturday between late-April and early October. Tickets must be purchased from recreation.gov on the same day of your climb. Nearby is the Oregon Inlet Campground, open year-round with over 100 sites for tents and RVs.
Near the tip of Cape Hatteras, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can typically be climbed during the same season described above. This lighthouse has a unique story, having originally been located right next to the beach until shoreline erosion threatened the structure. In 1999, the entire tower was lifted onto steel beams and moved inland over half a mile to its present location. Today there’s a visitor center and small museum, plus you can walk the relocation path to see the original lighthouse location near the surf zone.
There are two hiking trails and two campgrounds near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Buxton Woods Trail, departing from the Buxton Woods Picnic Area, is a short 0.75-mile loop through maritime forest. Nearby, the Cape Point Campground has just over 200 sites open seasonally from early April to late November.
Also nearby, the Open Ponds Trail is 4.5 miles, one-way, winding through forest and dunes across southern Hatteras Island between Buxton Woods Picnic Area and Frisco Campground. This campground has 127 sites that are open seasonally, typically from early April until late November.
Continuing south to Ocracoke Island requires taking the free state-operated ferry, which departs from Hatteras Island every half hour or every hour, depending on the time of year. The ferry takes vehicles and passengers on a round-about route through the shifting channels of scenic Pamlico Sound. (Note that if you’re coming from the west or the south on the mainland, ferry departures are possible from either Cedar Island or Swan Quarter.)
Once on Ocracoke Island, there are several worthy outdoor highlights. You can explore about 15 miles of undeveloped beach. Bicycling is popular among the few relatively low-traffic roads that cross the island. The Ocracoke Campground has 136 sites for tents and RVs which are open year-round. Across the road from the campground, the short Hammock Hills Trail is a 0.75-mile loop through forest and marsh with views of Pamlico Sound. Other visitors walk around Ocracoke Village, where you can view the historic Ocracoke Lighthouse from below or walk a short trail out to Springer’s Point on the sound side of the island. Ultimately, one of the best parts about Ocracoke is that the vast majority of the island, other than the village, is part of the national seashore.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
The fourth NPS unit in the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is located on three of the southernmost islands, North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. These are three of the most remote and least-developed islands in the Outer Banks. There are no bridges, paved roads, or services. Visitors must bring all supplies, including food and drinking water, with them. Each island can be reached by ferries, most of which dock near small visitor centers. On all islands, popular activities include hiking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and primitive beach camping. Kayaking is also possible in the sound for experienced kayakers launching their own boats from mainland access points.
On the two Core Banks, visitors are allowed to take suitable off-road vehicles on the ferry. Once on the island, vehicles can be driven only on the open, oceanside beach, down to the tide line, and on a sandy trail behind the dunes known as the “back road.” Vehicles are not allowed to drive on the dunes, nor on the sound-side beach, plus note that beach areas may be seasonally closed to protect turtle nests and bird populations. In advance, beach drivers must purchase an ORV beach driving permit and make reservations for the ferry—visit this NPS webpage for more information. In addition to day visits, overnight trips are possible. There are two rustic cabin facilities and primitive beach camping is allowed on both islands without any additional permit.
The southernmost island in the national seashore is Shackleford Banks. Vehicles are not allowed on the island, which can only be reached by passenger ferry. Once arrived, visitors must hike or backpack on overnight trips to explore the island. The experience is enhanced by a herd of feral horses, which roam the wilderness-like island in search of food.
We hope you have found this post helpful in planning an adventure-filled trip to the Outer Banks! If you’ve ever been before, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
Lead image: Bodie Island Lighthouse. Adobe/ahelflin